Number recognition activities

How to teach babies, toddlers and preschoolers to recognize numbers

The first step for any child is to learn how to recognize numbers. This, like anything else, is done slowly and through simple steps. Start slowly with a few numbers, then add on as your child matures.


In the first year, your child is literally a sponge. While it is tempting to believe that your child is born knowing nothing about math, that may not be true. A study done in the 1990’s found that babies understood basic math issues, including the conservancy of numbers. They showed babies simple puppets that danced in front of the child’s eyes. The puppets would disappear behind a screen and then re-appear a second later. When the same number emerged, the babies quickly lost interest in the program. But when a puppet was added behind the screen, or taken away, the babies would watch over and over again.

This indicates that babies have specific expectations about static numbers.

But that doesn’t mean that your baby knows what numbers are, or how they are made. But there are many activities you can do with your little one.

Songs and Stories

Songs are a great way to familiarize your child with number words, order and even simple addition and subtraction concepts. Try games like “This Little Piggy” to teach number words and number order. Songs such as “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” reinforce the idea. Other songs such as “Five Little Speckled Frogs,” and “Ten in the Bed,” both show basic subtraction skills.

Eating Numbers

You can teach your baby about numbers from the very beginning. Simply use simple number words as your work with your child. For example, when you are feeding your child, you might count the servings of cereal or fruit. When your child starts picking up simple pieces of cereal, count out the pieces as you lay them in front of her. Lay three or four pieces at a time. When she eats one, count the number of pieces left. Continue to count until all the cereal is gone, then start again.


As your child grows, he learns to speak and recognizes words you use over and over again. This means that the more number words you use, the more your child will learn to recognize the number words. You can teach your child to pair the number words with the numerals by making number symbols available to your child in blocks, toys and books. You can use these toys to cement number words and symbols in your child’s mind.

What’s my Number?

Start with three or four numbers at a time. For example, gather toys that say 1, 2 and 3. Show your child each number, then lay them on the table or floor. Ask your child to hand you the number two. If he does it correctly praise him. Say something like: “Yes, this is the number two. It has a curve on the top and a flat bottom.” If he hands you the wrong one, give him a clue. Say something like, “Not quite, the number two isn’t a straight line. It has a curve at the top.” As he gets better at the game, add more numbers until he can choose the correct number out of 10 to 12 numbers.

Driving Numbers

As your child becomes more familiar with recognizing numbers, it’s time to play more number games. Try writing numbers on the sidewalk or driveway. Like the former game, start with just three or four numerals. Call out a number, and encourage your child to run to the numeral. Like the former game, laugh and play if he runs to the wrong numeral. Give him clues and encourage him to try again.

Random Numbers

After your child can recognize numbers that you call out, it’s time to teach him how to say the numbers himself. Put number magnets or foam numbers in a tissue box or a bag. You start by reaching inside the box and randomly choosing a numeral. You show the child the numeral and tell him the name of the number. Then you let him choose a numeral and tell you the name. Continue until all the numbers are chosen.


Larger Numbers

Preschoolers are starting to explore larger numbers. So, you can add more numbers to your repertoire. You can continue to play the games you played with your toddler, but add numbers greater than 10. Add one or two numbers at a time until your child begins to recognize all the teen numbers, and moves into the twenties. Some children might even begin to move in the thirties and beyond.

Number Arrays

Beyond recognizing the names of larger numbers, it is also vital that your child learn to understand what the numbers mean. So, introduce number arrays. Number arrays are just a fancy way of talking about pictures that show how many items each number represents. So instead of just announcing a number and asking your child to run to that number, draw an array on a card and show it to your child. Then encourage your child to run to that number.

Many arrays are easily recognized. Think about dice. You don’t have to count how many pips are on each side. The arrangement is the same on almost every set of dice. But you want to shake up how your child recognizes numbers. So, change how you draw arrays for your child.

Number Notebook

Give your child a small notebook and write a number on each page. Then go through old magazine or newspaper flyers and start cutting out pictures. Arrange the pictures in the book so that they match the numbers. For example, on the page with the numeral 1, glue one beach ball. On the page with the numeral 12, she might glue a picture of a dozen eggs. Continue to fill the book until your child has a good number dictionary.

With fun and games, you can help your child become familiar with numbers and recognize both their names and their value.

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